“Kill Me, or Else You are a Murderer.” – Kafka’s Last Words

Although it has been a crime punishable by up to fourteen years in prison to assist in the suicide of another in England since the passing of the 1961 Suicide Act, it is no secret that violators of the law often go unpunished – even when their role in the suicide is public knowledge.  But, until recently, there has been no official word on what distinguishes those cases that are prosecuted from those cases that are not, leaving those who do provide such assistance uncertain of what consequences, if any, will follow.

Clarification was finally delivered thanks to a hard-fought and drawn out legal battle waged by a middle aged woman with multiple sclerosis named Debbie Purdy.  Debbie wants to have the option of choosing a quick and painless suicide before her disease has a chance to finish the work it has started.  Like many in England who face the same choice, she intends to travel to Switzerland when she is ready, the only country where it is legal to assist both citizens and foreigners with suicide.  Her concern, however, is that if she waits until she cannot travel on her own, and her husband helps her get there, that upon returning he might face criminal charges.  So she petitioned the courts for an answer.

Finally, after several losses in lower courts, Debbie succeeded in getting the Law Lords to order England’s top Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, to clarify when his office will and when it will not enforce the Suicide Act.  In response, Starmer released a statement listing those things that are taken into consideration when determining whether to prosecute a case, such as whether the deceased was terminally ill and had clearly expressed a wish to die, and whether the person assisting was acting out of compassion.

The release of these criteria by Starmer was largely publicized as a relaxation of the law; what is interesting, however, is that the law itself hasn’t changed.  In fact, numerous attempts to change the law by members of parliament have failed, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown has promised to block any future attempts to amend the law.  All that has happened is that the office charged with enforcing the law has essentially refused to do so in cases where people are acting out of compassion.

This situation is, in some respects, symptomatic of the tension between the right to die movement and societies that are not prepared to discard their inherited moral disapprobation of the very idea of suicide – a moral qualm that isn’t quite as universal and immemorial as many might assume.

The very word “suicide” tends to evoke strong emotional reactions- and for good reason: Too often suicide is sought as an answer to the kind of despair that could equally well be solved with the passage of time coupled with the love and support of family, friends, and, perhaps, mental health professionals.  It is, in these instances, a permanent solution to an impermanent problem.  It leaves those who are left behind in a stew of unpleasant emotions – a mélange of sadness, anger, confusion, guilt, shame, and more.  For these reasons, suicide is viewed by the bulk of humankind today as an irrational, cowardly, and selfish act.  There are times, however, when it is none of these; there are times even when it is precisely the opposite.

In at least some instances suicide offers a wholly justified and desirable alternative to suffering through a fog of pain and incontinence to a bitter and undignified end.  Those who find themselves in these circumstances deserve our sympathies, as do those who are faced with the equally incomprehensible choice between supporting and assisting their loved one’s decision to end their suffering through suicide, and abandoning them in their most difficult moment.

Critics of the right to die movement in England, as elsewhere, argue that once assisted suicide is allowed in some cases, it won’t be long before we are prescribing hemlock for depression and euthanizing our grandparents to get them out of our hair.  These slippery slope arguments are very effective, particularly with grandparents, because they appeal to our emotions rather than our reason.  We might assuage our fears, however, by reminding ourselves that there are still grandparents, nursing homes, and humanely treated depressed people in Oregon, Washington, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Switzerland; each of which allows some form of legal assisted suicide.

A similar argument is that even if we restrict legal suicide to those who are suffering from incurable terminal illnesses the room for abuse will be extensive: The ill will be pressured into committing suicide against their will, consent will be fabricated, and murder will masquerade as compassion.  This argument is founded on a reasonable assumption about human beings – that some of us are apt to find ways to abuse just about anything.  The upshot of this insight, however, when stripped of all hyperbole, is that if we choose to countenance assisted suicide in certain limited situations, then we must be sure to carefully craft the laws governing the activity and ensure that the authorities tasked with monitoring the activity do so effectively.  We already have examples of what such a system would look like in places like Oregon, where physician assisted suicide has been legal for over a decade.

Besides, if the potential for abuse is the primary argument against legalizing assisted suicide, then the debate really boils down to whether we would prefer to force the incurably ill to suffer needlessly over taking on the task of carefully crafting and effectively enforcing good laws to regulate how and when assisted suicide ought to be an option.  This is not to say that abuses will never occur, but simply that such abuses ought to be treated like all other criminal behavior, not as excuses for limiting the choices available to us in matters so undeniably pertinent to the quality of our final days.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user dev null.

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Published in: on October 16, 2009 at 5:30 pm Comments Off on “Kill Me, or Else You are a Murderer.” – Kafka’s Last Words

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